The Newport Pier, Granddaddy of ‘em all…

Some may question the title given the fact that the McFadden Wharf, the precursor to today’s Newport Pier, wasn’t built until 1888. By that time a number of wharves had been built, or were being built, from San Francisco south to Oceanside. However, it can be argued that none affected California’s fishing scene as dramatically as the deep-water wharf at Newport.

The end of the line, in this case the ocean-end terminal for the Santa Ana and Newport Railroad, the wharf was used on Sundays by fishermen who found an amazing number of fish. A.J. McFadden himself, one of the brothers who built the wharf, is quoted as saying that he could catch a dozen yellowtail anytime he wanted from the wharf. The wharf, and later pier — it became a city-owned fishing pier in 1922 — became renown for its quantity and quality of fish. One of the most amazing in the ‘20s was an 83-pound white seabass that was hooked on the pier but eventually fought and landed in a small skiff.

By the ‘30s it was reported that more than 750,000 people were using the pier per year. And they were catching fish. A huge 435-pound giant black sea bass was reported in 1937 but it was only one of many huge bass fought at the pier during the decade. It was even reported than some years would see albacore enter the pier’s waters. Little reason to wonder why the pier was crowded during those Depression era years. What better thing to do than fish, especially if you’re out of work and can fill up a gunnysack with fresh fish for your family?

By the mid-1930s Newport Beach itself was arguably the center of southland sportfishing and the pier had played a vital part in that growth. Starting in the mid-‘20s, and extending into the ‘60s, pier anglers were confronted with a series of barges that operated from the end of the pier. Barges included the Esther Buhne, Annie M. Rolph, Melrose, Mindanao, Paramount, The Barge, Gander, Iwo Jima, McCullah Bros. #3, Dixie, and the Georgia. In 1925 Ozzie Ozene began running the party boat Sunshine daily from the pier; it was later joined by the Big Sunny and Little Sunny. The pier’s barges and sportfishing boats helped stimulate the growth of the local sportfishing industry, a fleet that would become the southland’s largest (with 15 open party boats and 121 charter boats) after 1935, the year the main channel into Newport Harbor was made safe for all types of boats.

Those days are now largely over but enough big (and small) fish continue to provide the hope and motivation to keep the pier filled with an estimated 365,000 anglers a year. If it seems just a tad crowded at times, you’re right. Still, the pier can be nearly deserted during cold winter days while anglers stand elbow to elbow during the hot mac attacks of summer and fall.

Today, the anglers who frequent the 1,032 foot-long pier are presented a more normal mix of southern California pier species, Inshore, the main species are barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker, spotfin croaker, and the elusive corbina. All are available but seemingly in smaller numbers than the more shallow, sandy-shore piers to the north and south. The only negative aspect is the number of snaggers who are out many nights trying for corbina.

Mid-pier, the prize catch is halibut and some good-sized flatties are taken every year (including a 38-pound fish in May of ’01). More commonly caught are the small croakers—white croaker and queenfish—and small walleye perch, while occasional sand or kelp bass, and more than occasional jacksmelt, will also make appearances. Of course the thrornback rays, shovelnose guitarfish, and bat rays provide quite a bit of fun even if they are still considered incidental catches.

Out at the end of the pier in the deepest water, not too far from the upper edges of the Newport Submarine Canyon, reside most of the pelagic species and Newport has long been considered one of the best piers for mackerel and bonito (when the boneheads make an appearance). The end is the site for the largest sharks and a variety of unusual deep-water species rarely seen at other California piers—hake, sablefish, giant Humboldt squid (some years) and a few rockfish. The end area is also the home for many sculpins (scorpionfish) and a surprising number of large spider crabs, those Mr. Ugly contestants that never fail to startle and surprise unsuspecting anglers.

At night, the pier can see some good shark and mud marlin action. A 15-year-old angler took an eight-foot-long, 225-pound hammerhead shark in 1978 and thresher sharks make an occasional appearance. Large shovelnose sharks (guitarfish) are common and guitarfish reaching over five feet in length have been reported. The heaviest fish are the big old mud marlins, the bat rays, and they’ve been reported to 246 pounds. If accurate, that fish would have qualified as the state record. Anglers do need to remember to bring some stout tackle and a way to get the large fish up to the surface of the pier if they’re seeking the big ‘uns. Unfortunately the fact that the pier is only open from 5 a.m. till midnight does limit the shark fishin’ hours to some degree.

There are of course many changes today. Parking can be almost impossible at times and it isn’t cheap ($.75 per hour) but there are a wide variety of attractions adjacent to and down the peninsula from the pier. Not to be missed is the dory fishing fleet, which sits on the sandy beach just north of the pier. The fleet began fishing in 1891 and today it is the last remaining fleet of its type. The boats head out early each morning to collect their fish, return, and then sell their fish right next to their boats along Rock Cod Lane. Stalls will be filled with sablefish, thornyheads, scorpionfish, more common deep-water rockfish species, and whatever other species had the audacity to bite the hooks set out by the fishermen. The fleet adds to the environment of the pier and sometimes provides a ready market for fresh fish when the pier anglers are unsuccessful.

The pier is a fishery resource that is heavily used but still vibrant more than a century after opening as the McFadden Wharf. Today anglers flock to the pier from more distant venues than those early anglers but the goal is the same, to enjoy the fresh air at the beach and to catch a few fish. Luckily, most are still able to meet those goals.

How To Get There: From the Pacific Coast Highway take the Newport Blvd. turnoff and proceed west watching for signs directing traffic to the pier. The pier sits at the foot of McFadden Place.

Fish Taco Chronicles

August, 2004

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